Diamonds coach Lisa Alexander. Photo: Jay Cronan
Diamonds coach Lisa Alexander accepts that her shooting circle will be targeted as Australia's arc of greatest vulnerability when it seeks a first Commonwealth Games gold medal since 2002, in a competition she predicts may not necessarily extend the traditional trans-Tasman duopoly.
Australia won the first two Commonwealth titles, in Kuala Lumpur (1998) and Manchester (2002), and was elbowed on to the silver medal dais by great rival New Zealand in Melbourne (2006) and Delhi (2010), despite winning the past two world titles and five of the past seven.
But host nation England, the owner of three more modest bronzed necklets, has five ANZ Championship players –including three-time All Star and Melbourne Vixens' goal keeper Geva Mentor – in its 12-player squad, and, having shocked the Diamonds 3-0 in its home series 18 months ago, is boldly talking up a Glasgow breakthrough.
Alexander understands why. "That's what I said when we came off that series in 2013 – that bloody hurt, but it showed you the progression they've made," the first-time Games coach said of the England team the Diamonds will meet next Saturday in their second group match. The first is against Wales on Wednesday.
"They've put a lot of money into the sport, they've been very professional, they've got a coach that's very smart, and they've harnessed their love of playing for England. They think they can win. That's what they're saying in the press over here, they're very confident, so we've got much more than a two-horse race, and I think Jamaica are an unknown quantity as well.
"This is (England's) best opportunity in many respects; they're going to be playing in their own time, they've got the strength of UK sport behind them, so everything's there for them to do as well as they can, particularly with the experience that they have in their line-up."
By opening up the elite trans-Tasman club competition to imports, including Mentor, England captain Jade Clark, and joint Anz Championship MVP Jo Harten, Alexander admits that, in some respects, Australia and New Zealand may be working contrary to their own best international interests.
"Of course we are, you know that,'' Alexander said. "If you think in a very linear manner, you would see it as a great threat, but I see it, as well, that we have an opportunity, because we know them better than ever. We know them up close and personal. I've always said that you keep your friends close, keep your enemies closer, and at the end of the day it's a big advantage for us as well."
For Australia, much will depend on a goaling quartet that includes major-title debutantes Tegan Caldwell and Caitlin Thwaites, plus Caitlin Bassett and Nat Medhurst from the underperforming West Coast Fever, with recent regular Erin Bell overlooked.
Dual gold medallist and former captain Sharelle McMahon, the only Australian to have competed in all four previous Commonwealth Games, considers trans-Tasman grand final MVP Caldwell a welcome and deserving addition, while conceding that the attacking circle is "something that certainly needs to be pulled together, and a lot of work needs to be done there, but they've got the talent to do it; it's just a matter of getting their minds into the right space''.
Alexander acknowledges as "probably fair" the assessment of her scoring quartet as less reliable than a midcourt boasting star duo Kim Green and Madi Robinson, and a starting back three of captain Laura Geitz, her dependable deputy Bianca Chatfield and experienced wing defence Renae Hallinan.
"I think it's probably the area where people will put question marks on us, but it's up to us to respond," she said. "We think we've picked the best available and we think they bring what we need to win. Nat Medhurst and 'C Bass' have had a difficult year, but they haven't had an Australian centre court feeding them, so now that they're going to have that, I think things will change, and everyone will see that."
Ah, the midcourt. McMahon almost salivates at the thought. "If I was playing goal attack with Madi and Kim Green, I would be loving it," she says. "Some of the passes that they feed into the circle are just incredible; I don't know how they see the space, and if they get a nice combination happening, the defenders just won't be able to get a touch on it. They just have am amazing ability to control the ball and see space that others can't, so I think that is going to be a huge, huge advantage for Australia.
"England, with what they've done over the last couple of years with some of their athletes in ANZ Champs, they take in a lot of experience and are going to be really tough as well, but I think that – not just against New Zealand but against any nation – that Australian centre court's really going to stack up, and make it really tough.''